A weekend in San Gil, Santander.

Where I learnt to let go

When I travel, I normally pick some cultural destinations. Better if somewhere sunny and warm, to flee Bogota’s moody and cold weather.

This time, however, I decided to embark on a different journey. One involving adrenaline, and nature.

I wanted to feel small, ppwerless, and to let go.

That’s how I ended up on a bus on Friday night, with destination San Gil, in the department of Santander.

Founded in 1689, San Gil is over 300 years old. It was officially named the tourist capital of the region of Santander in 2004, thanks to its extreme sports and outdoor activities.

The city is located at about 1000 m above the sea level and therefore, a significant part of its economy is based on agriculture, with tobacco, sugar cane and coffee plantations scattered around its evergreen valleys.

I start my trip with Miguel, a friend I had met a week before on an excursion at the Chupal’s waterfalls.

At San Gil station, a new friend unexpectedly joins the team.

it’s Anna, a girl from Germany with blue curious eyes and curly hair. We have a rich breakfast in a local cafe, where I immediately understand how hard it is going to be to eat vegetarian here.

Then, we decide to go for our first adventure: paragliding.

We book through the Parapente Chicamocha company (50 euros for a 20 minute experience, including insurance and transport both ways) and a small truck comes to pick us up a few minutes later. We soon arrive at Chicamocha Canyon, which is going to be the amphitheatre of our flight. 

The Chicamocha canyon is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Chicamocha River. With a maximum depth of 2,000 metres and a length of 227 kilometres, the canyon is the second-largest worldwide. The name Chicamocha in the Chibcha language of the Muisca means “silver-plated son, under the moon on the mountain range”.

Its landscape is stunning.

A big guy gathers us and we start the briefing. I started feeling nervous, as if I was just starting to realize what was awaiting me. I carefully listen to the instructions about the take off, as the instructor whom we’ll be flying with relies on us for correctly taking off.

I perhaps pay too little attention to the part where they tell us what could be the landing spots.

One is in the nearby forest, another one in the river bed at around 1 hour from the take off area of the canyon.  It happens very rarely to actually land there. Finally, there is the most common spot – that is, the departure point. I prefer to focus on and rehearse the take off instructions, sure I would be landing where I was going to depart. How wrong I was.

I am ready, physically and psychologically, when I hear my name being called. Time is up. I learn I will be flying with Giuseppe.

I am all set and sooner that I know I am flying.

What an unexpected experience. It started with the adrenaline of the take off and then, just the silence. While I’m admiring the beautiful landscape, Giuseppe asks me how I feel, and explains to me the maneuvers he’s undertaking. We run into some air streams and change direction several times.

I feel a kaleidoscope of emotions: fear and tension during the turbulences caused by the air streams. Relief when the turbulence is over. Boredom, almost, after a few quiet minutes. My stomach is upside-down and I feel dizzy. But then I get into a new turbulence and I’m tense again.

Giuseppe knows the landscape very well as he’s been flying over this canyon for 10 years now. He must be very experienced, I think.

It’s only when he removes his mask and protective equipment, once on the ground, than I can finally see his face. I figure he must be so young… I soon came to realize I put my life into a 24 years old boy. But a boy with over 10 years of experience flying, and with passion and enthusiasm in the eyes.

While we’re flying, he tells me that the landscape has changed considerably over the last decade.

It used to be dry and brown, while now with the intense rains and floods as a consequence of climate change, everything is way greener. Few houses with red roofs and clothes hanging outside scatter the canyon. Sometimes we cross paths with a bird – he’s a friend, Giuseppe tells me.

As we slowly approach the ground, I think time must be running out, and that we should be landing soon.

That’s when I hear Giuseppe say, in his walky talky “we’re going to land in the river”.

Eventually, we didn’t land in the river, but in the river’s bed.The famous river’s bed nobody lands in. Well, I did.

It takes us one hour to go back to the starting point. A considerable part of this time was spent waiting; about 15 minutes walking, and most of it in the truck that came to pick us up. In the meantime I listen to the story of Giuseppe,, who started flying as a joke, fell in love with it and then made it his career. 

When we finally get back to the starting point, after a 30 minutes ride across the mountain, I feel more dizzy than I had felt while flying. I receive a well deserved beer which gets me ready for the next adventure.

Sunday, 8am.

Ready to explore the la Vaca cave, in the Curití department. In San Gil there are two caves, La Vaca and the cave of the Indios. We pick the former completely randomly.

La Cueva de La Vaca is one of the underground jewels for caving in Colombia. In the cave you go through frozen water wells, bats, giant vaults where you can observe the natural phenomenon of rock formation known as stalactites and stalagmites. 

We join a group and our guide, a 23 years old boy, gives us instructions for the excursion. This time I listened very carefully.

“It’s going to be a 2 hour walk in the caves, around 70kms underground. You’ll see bats, hidden behind the spectaculous stalagmites. Water level will normally be at the chaste level, but there will be one point where water reaches the ceiling of the cave, so there is no way we could walk. It will be time to swim. You’ll have to dive for around 7 seconds to get to the other side of the cave, where the water level is lower.” I couldn’t believe what I heard.

That’s how it went.

We enter the cave and as we walk, water level is quickly rising, from our knees, to our chaste, to our neck. Water is cold and green and I hope I’m not going to get sick. Tifus, I think. I hope I won’t get tifus. Anyway I got my vaccination in December so I should still be covered…

The space is getting narrow and narrower.

The other members of our group start breathing quite heavily.

I do too. It helps me to contain the anxiety.

About 15 minutes later, we get to the mentioned spot where we have to dive. I have always felt completely comfortable in the water, but in this cave it is different. The water is dark and I can’t see my own feet, I feel claustrophobic and scared.

Inside the cave

We are passing one by one and when my time comes almost everybody is waiting for me on the other side.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, grab the rope, and quickly single-arm swim to the other side, while I feel the rock wall over my head.

When the instructor touches my shoulder I understand I made it safely. And I can finally enjoy the rest of the walk, admire the huge stalactites and stalagmites, see bats and cave crabs, get the clay from the walls and spread it all over my body, thinking this curative measure will hopefully prevent me from getting sick.

By the way I didn’t get sick; instead, the next day my sore throat was gone. Thanks, la Vaca cave.

When we get out I am proud of myself for not giving up to fear and I almost feel like I might want to do this all over again. I also am completely wet and don’t have a spare pair of shoes on me..so i decide to walk around the village in my Harry Potter socks.

But that’s another story.

Sunday, 3pm.

We take a bus to Barichara, a very cute (but) colonial village, which is around 30 minutes from San Gil.

Barichara was founded on August 1st, 1742. Legend has it that, in 1702, the Virgin appeared to a peasant farmer. Her image remained imprinted in the surrounding pavement stone. Days later, fervent catholics started arriving at the spot of worship. It is on that spot that Francesco Pradilla and Ayerbe founded Barichara, a local Guane native India word meaning “a place to rest”.

It was not going to be a place to rest for us, really.

In front of Barichara’s cathedral

We check out the mirador and enjoy the dusk from there. A family is taking a group picture with a drone and I don’t know where to stand to avoid being part of the picture. I probably ended up being the unwanted, unknown figure in each and every shot of their family album.

We then take a walk in the near-by open-air museum, a camelio of handcraft art inspired by the water element and brought to life by an indigenous artist.

When we return to the main square, we find out it’s overcrowded.

It’s Barichara’s cultural festival.

We sit on the church steps and enjoy the catwalk of 32 young couples wearing local dresses, one for each department of Colombia. 

About one hour later the party starts. I hear the first notes of “o sole mio” and suddenly feel like at home – or at least one of my homes.

The tenor is hidden in the audience, in disguise. So are the tenors and sopranos of the following songs, popping up one by one in the audience, unveiled by their powerful voices. From Italian lyric music we slowly pass to Italian music from the late 70s. Gloria and Maledetta primavera times, just to give you a glimpse of the party style. I soon find a lady to jump with at the sound of these familiar notes, and suddenly feel like I’m in a concert in the pre-covid era. 

Before I know it I’m dancing (or trying to) salsa, merengue, vallenato, reggaeton. I feel fearless.

With Anna and Miguel. Blurry faces.

At 1am I am voiceless. And missing my bed. There are no public buses going back to San Gil late at night. I was more likely to meet a taxi driver on the dance floor than in a real taxi.

A local family helps us out and we manage to call a taxi, which comes to pick us up directly from San Gil.

The name of the taxi driver is Omar.

I haven’t heard this name since my last visit to Brussels. I fall asleep in the cab thinking about globalization and human mobility.

Monday, 9am.

Ready for one of the last adventures of the weekend: rafting in the river.

Getting ready

The river flow is quite strong and we get tipped over three times. Never mind. The feeling of being in water, dragged by the flow with no power over it makes me feel good. It’s the kind of feeling I hold on to when I’m overwhelmed and nervous.

And it’s one of the feelings I’ll bring home with me after this unusual weekend.

A weekend of adrenaline, nature and culture, and a weekend of letting go.

I tried to spend this weekend, just like any other day, being careful of never forgetting my privilege, even while having the time of my life dancing, flying, swimming.

What privilege?

The privilege of swimming in a river or diving in water because I want to, and not because I am forced to.

The privilege of swimming in a river or diving in water to feel the adrenaline under my skin, and discover new sides of myself. Not to flee danger, hunger, poverty.

No caption needed. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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